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First published in The Boy's Own Paper: 19 and 26 October 1907

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IN the early "'seventies" H.M.S. Forte was the flagship on the East Indies station, she being a wooden fifty-gun frigate, bearing the broad pennant of a commodore, and carrying the usual complement of officers and men. Ironclads there were in plenty in those days, but for some reason the Admiralty did not deem it necessary to commission any of them for service in the East Indies, and the fleet in those waters was therefore exclusively composed of wooden ships, the majority of which were engaged, during the period when the south-western monsoon was blowing (from April to September), in endeavouring to suppress the odious slave traffic, at that time in full swing on every part of the East African and Arabian coasts, in the Red Sea, and up the Persian Gulf.

Predatory Arabs were the prime movers and organisers of this detestable trade in hapless kidnapped Africans, and they were the owners of numerous "dhows," fitted with temporary bamboo decks, in which the miserable victims were conveyed to their destination, many of them dying on the way from disease and semi- starvation.

The Arab slave-dealers' usual plan of action was to equip and march up into the hinterland a marauding, bloodthirsty band of their own countrymen, only too ready for any desperate enterprise that promised to feed their unholy lust for blood and gold. Villages, previously marked out for attack, were ruthlessly stormed and perhaps destroyed, the majority of the unarmed and panic-stricken inhabitants—men, women, and children—being seized, bound, and led away into captivity.

In those days the great central slave-mart, which I have frequently seen, was at Zanzibar, and thither the kidnapped villagers were taken, the Sultan receiving a poll-tax from the Arabs for every slave landed upon the island for sale.

Having found purchasers, the poor frightened creatures were usually hurried off in bands to the dhows lying at anchor in the road-stead, and shipped off to their various destinations, members of families being often divided and sent in different directions, regardless of their sullen expostulations and bitter tears. The hearts of slave-dealers are as hard as adamant.

It was to stem the tide of this nefarious traffic that Her Majesty's fleet always concentrated upon the East African and Arabian coasts in the spring of each year, the officers and ships' companies being keenly on the alert for the excitement of active service, for the Arabs would at times defend their vessels and ill-gotten cargoes with desperate tenacity, their weapons being antiquated muskets, spears, swords, pistols, and daggers.

At the time of the story which I am about to relate, I was one of the midshipmen of the flagship Forte, already referred to. On a certain sweltering hot afternoon, when the caulking was exuding from the seams in the deck in spite of double awnings, and the thermometer stood at 92° under the poop, we were steaming at half-speed in a southerly direction along the east coast of Africa, keeping a bright look-out for slavers. Our top-gallant and royal yards had been sent on deck, and our top-gallant masts struck.

Away on the starboard beam the bold serrated promontory of Ras Hafoon loomed up in its vast sterility against a cloudless sky of blue. More remote, the grey misty ranges of the Somali hinterland bounded the vision to the westward. No vegetation could be detected. Not even one solitary date-palm relieved the sun-baked, barren, and weird landscape. A waterless, shadeless desert this portion of the great Dark Continent appeared to be, bounded by a creamy line of booming surf, which ceaselessly crashed upon its tawny shelving sands.

It was my afternoon watch upon this particular day. Six bells had struck, and I had hove the log and reported the vessel's speed to the officer of the watch, who was vigilantly pacing the poop, now sweeping the horizon with his telescope, and again glancing at the binnacle compass to see that the frigate was laying her proper course.

We had been steaming in the teeth of a fresh south-westerly breeze all the morning, but soon after the dinner-hour this had more or less died away, and the sea was comparatively calm, and alive with flying-fish and bonito.

"Wessel away on de port bow!" came in a sudden and very guttural hail from a negro sailor perched on the fore-topmast cross-trees as look-out man.

Instantly there was a flutter of excitement, and the sound of hasty exclamations upon the upper deck, where hitherto perfect quietude had reigned, the watch on deck sprawling about half- asleep in the deep shadow of the awnings.

I snatched up a telescope and made a dash to the entry-port. Nothing, however, rewarded my vigilant scrutiny of the distant horizon. The officer and signalman of the watch were equally unsuccessful.

The engines were ordered to go at full speed, and the commodore, ruthlessly aroused from his afternoon siesta, came on deck, calm and impassive, to try and "spot" the stranger.

In a very short time she was clearly visible to all beholders—a large sailing dhow, running free, and evidently bringing a freshening breeze with her, for her towering lateen sail, gleaming white in the sparkling sunlight, was well inflated.

We altered course to close her, and could see the white wave piled up at her sharp bows as she clave through a sea of the deepest azure, and bore down upon us with an effrontery that was usually lacking with Arab slave-dealers when they encounter an English man-of-war upon the high seas.

A group of officers upon the poop were discussing the matter with much animation.

"Call away the first cutter's crew to arm themselves and man their boat!" suddenly sang out the lieutenant of the watch.

"Ay, ay, sir!" responded the boatswain's mate of the watch; and he ran to the main hatchway, chirruped on his silver whistle, and then rolled out the order in his gruffest tones, to be repeated by his confrères below in every form of human bellow.

"Tell Mr. Douglas to go away in the cutter," said the lieutenant to me, "and pass the word for the interpreter."

I instantly carried out these orders. Abdul, our native interpreter, was in waiting near the main-mast, and at once ran aft to interview the officers, his wild-looking sombre eyes alive with excitement. Hitherto this man had been most useful to us on our slave-cruising expeditions, as he was well acquainted with all the dialects of the coast, in addition to Arabic—his native tongue—and Hindustani.

My messmate, Douglas, came on deck, carrying a sword much too large for him, but with a very determined look upon his youthful countenance.

"You and your merry men have got to go away and seize that piratical-looking craft," I said, pointing at the dhow. "We want some more prize-money badly, so don't hesitate to take strong measures if the Arab skipper shows fight; but don't get knocked on the head yourself, as we can't afford to lose such a bright ornament to the service!"

My middy friend was about to make some forcible retort when the commodore summoned him to the poop to receive his instructions.

Ten minutes later he was pulling for all he was worth across the intervening waters.

The Forte was lying immovable upon the gently heaving sea, her port forecastle guns being loaded with common shell in case it should prove necessary to pepper the Arab vessel for refusing to heave-to.

Intense excitement reigned fore and aft, and by this time the whole ship's company was on deck, keenly watching the progress of events.

The Skipper of the dhow, however, did not act up to the character I had given him. On seeing the approach of the cutter, with my determined-looking messmate in the stern-sheets, he promptly shortened sail and hove-to.

A wave of disappointment swept over the lines of eager watchers. With bellicose feelings surging in our hearts, we had hoped to see red jets of flame spurt over the dhow's taffrail, or groups of fanatical Arabs menacingly shaking their glittering spears in the sun-steeped air, as they ferociously shouted the war-cries of Mohammed.

"Why, she's not a slaver, after all," I said half-angrily. "What a sell, to be sure!"

"And if she is a slaver, do you suppose she'd show fight right under the muzzles of our guns?" observed the bo's'n, who was standing close to me. "Her skipper ain't quite daft, I take it!"

"Well, it's a very tame proceeding," I responded regretfully, "and we'd better pipe down and go to tea."

"You young gentlemen are always wanting to smell powder," laughed the bo's'n. "Well, I s'pose I was much the same when I was your tender age."

Douglas by this time had boarded the stranger, accompanied by Abdul the interpreter. In a very short space of time they both quitted the vessel, and, jumping into the cutter, commenced their return journey; the dhow meanwhile making sail and calmly resuming her interrupted voyage.

"An ordinary trader!" I exclaimed, as I turned my glass upon the cutter. "I can almost see the look of disgust upon the faces of the cutter's crew."

What I saw, however, was something quite different. Abdul was standing up in the boat, gesticulating wildly, and evidently haranguing the cutter's middy with more than Eastern volubility. My chum was apparently motioning to the excited orator to resume his seat, and hold his tongue; but the coxswain, with the usual directness of the British bluejacket, was shaking a large hairy fist at him.

"Apparently a difference of opinion between your messmate and our brown spouter of lingos," observed the bo's'n, who had also turned his glass upon the occupants of the cutter. "That Abdul has the gift of the gab and no mistake! I'd back him against a Portsmouth bumboat-woman any day in the week."

"Oh, look!" I cried, in horrified tones. "He's attacking Douglas with a knife!"

There was a chorus of excited exclamations from the poop at this moment, for several officers were concentrating their attention upon the cutter.

It was evident that Abdul's mental excitement had suddenly developed into homicidal mania—that he was "running amok," as it is termed in the East.

The British midshipman, however, is not usually caught napping. A more wide-awake youngster is not to be found within the boundaries of the seven seas. When Abdul, therefore, after an impassioned harangue on the subject of young officers allowing dhows crammed with slaves to escape in the guise of peaceful merchantmen, worked himself up into a white heat of fury, whipped out a formidable-looking knife, and sprang at Douglas, that young gentleman was ready for him. With a quick movement he dodged the gleaming blade, and turned quickly to grapple with his assailant, who was as lithe and quick in his movements as a deadly snake.

But the coxswain of the cutter was the arbiter of fate upon this occasion. At the first alarm he had sprung from his perch abaft all, and, as Abdul was preparing a second and perhaps more deadly spring at Douglas, dealt him a heavy blow between the eyes with his enormous fist, and sent him crashing down like a felled ox amongst the bottom boards and gratings.

But the rascal had marvellous vitality, and was by no means stunned. With a snarl like a wounded wild beast he struggled to his feet, his dark eyes ablaze with baffled rage and incipient insanity. His knife had fallen from his grasp, and he possessed no other weapon, which was a fortunate circumstance.

As the madman flew at the middy, evidently with the intention of clutching him by the throat, three seamen threw themselves upon him, and endeavoured to secure him. The strength of the poor wretch, however, proved to be something almost superhuman, as it often is in these cases, and a fearful struggle ensued, which only ended when Abdul became completely exhausted.

Meanwhile we had manned another boat, in case it should be necessary to send assistance, but its services were not required, and we hoisted her up again. With a strangely distorted face, and panting and moaning in apparent physical agony, Abdul was carried up the side by two stalwart seamen, and conveyed to the sick-bay, whither the surgeons hurried to attend to him.

Douglas reported to the commodore that the dhow had proved to be an ordinary trader, proceeding to Bombay with a cargo of cotton, cloves, and gum-copal, and that her papers had been all in order. He added that Abdul's manner on board the vessel had been extremely strange, as he had insisted that there were two hundred slaves hidden away below, although when questioned as to the source of his information he could only mutter a string of incomprehensible sentences, roll his eyeballs in their sockets, and make strange passes around his turbaned head.

I do not know how the ship's surgeons treated Abdul, but they reported that he was as quiet as a tame brown lamb, and appeared to have no recollection of the strange events in the cutter—events which had so nearly culminated in a terrible tragedy.

"Homicidal mania. Yes, of course," said the senior surgeon, with a wise shake of the head. "These excitable Easterns are subject to it, you know. Very likely won't occur again. The chap is as sane as I am at this minute. Padre," to the chaplain, "I challenge you to a game of chess."


TWO days later we returned to the coast of Arabia, and captured a slaver off the Kuria Muria Islands—without Abdul's assistance, for it was thought better that he should remain "off duty" for a time.

There were ninety-five slaves on board this prize, the majority of them being mere walking skeletons, with ribs almost protruding through their black skins. Indeed, some of them could not walk at all without assistance, for they had been squatting for long days and nights under the bamboo decks, which were so constructed, to save space, that it was impossible even to sit upright between them.

The joy of these poor wretches on being set free can be better imagined than described. I well remember the glistening of their deep-sunken hungry eyes when we supplied them with an ample ration of boiled rice. Their emaciated bodies soon began to get plump again, and we eventually landed them at Aden in fairly good condition.

Resuming our operations against the slavers, we found it almost impossible to dispense with Abdul's services. Sometimes we had to board ten or a dozen dhows in a day. The surgeons still continued to report so favourably of Abdul, and the interpreter himself, with tears in his eyes, so humbly implored to be allowed to return to duty, that the commodore at length granted his permission.

We were then cruising off Muscat, our intention being shortly to shape a course for the Arabian port of Makullah, where it was strongly suspected a slave-mart was being formed. And I may mention here that we afterwards discovered that Makullah was in reality nothing more or less than a convenient half-way house where the emaciated slaves from the coast of Africa could be landed and "fatted up," previous to being taken up the Persian Gulf for sale.*

(* The slave-trade has now been stamped out upon the East African and Arabian coasts.)

To all appearance Abdul was as sane as any of us, and even Douglas distrusted him no longer. That young gentleman's coxswain was, I think, the only sceptic on board, persistently declaring that, in his opinion, "that there interpreter had a blooming screw loose somewhere, and was a swab what could deceive the fust Lord of the Admiralty hisself!"

We were steaming in a westerly direction one forenoon, the arid sterile Arabian coast being about eight miles distant, and bearing full on the starboard beam. The atmosphere was like that of an oven, and the sun's rays poured down out of a cloudless brazen sky as if they wished to consume us in their fiery wrath. Not a catspaw ruffled the deep, which lay like a vast sea of purest glass, save where our slowly revolving screw churned it up into eddies and whirlpools of spume and spray, a great white pathway leading away mysteriously to the verge of the distant horizon-line.

Seven bells—half-past eleven o'clock—had just struck, when Abdul, who had been standing upon a forecastle gun, moodily gazing seawards, suddenly uttered a strange ejaculation, sprang to the deck, and hurried aft to the quarter-deck, where he encountered the mid of the watch.

"'All hope abandon ye who enter here,'" exclaimed that young gentleman facetiously; "but I can let you have a reserved seat on the poop for two rupees. Fork out, Abdul!"

"Slave-dhow in sight, sar," said the interpreter, with calm assurance in his tones. "Me want to spik wid de occifer ob de watch mosh queeckly, please, sar."

"The look-out man hasn't reported a sail," answered the middy incredulously.

"Dem all blind mans for sure," retorted the interpreter. "Come on de poop wid me, and I show you dis wessel away to de south- west, an' de lieutenant, too."

At this moment I came on deck with my sextant, intending to take a midday observation for latitude. The mid of the watch told me what Abdul had been saying, and the result of this was that we all repaired to the poop, and reported the matter to the lieutenant on duty.

That officer glanced keenly for a moment at Abdul, but that individual betrayed no signs of excitement or restlessness. He merely reiterated his story of the discovered dhow, and pointed out with much deliberation the point upon the horizon where he had first detected her.

We all strained our eyes, but could see nothing with the naked eye. Then the lieutenant and signalman of the watch made use of their telescopes, but still without attaining any result.

"Do you still see her, Abdul?" demanded the lieutenant.

The interpreter shaded his sombre eyes with his hands, and gazed long and earnestly over the glassy sea.

"Yes, me see her truly, sar. De white sail am like one tiny speck on de blue sky ober dar, but am shift about one bit. Oh, yes, me see her sure enof, an' she makin' for de port of Makullah wid hondred ob slave mans, an' womans, an' pickaninnies."

"In this dead calm?" exclaimed the lieutenant. "Now you're talking nonsense, Abdul."

"One wind ober der. One wind ober der. Her sail like de flyin'-fish!" said the interpreter, still gazing fixedly at a spot about two points on the port bow. Then his swarthy face began to twitch with excitement, and he moved with a restless air to the taffrail, and glanced over the side as if to calculate the speed at which the frigate was forging through the water.

The commodore now came on deck to get an appetite for luncheon, followed by a number of officers armed with sextants. The sun was nearly on the meridian.

As soon as the commodore heard of Abdul's report, he hailed the look-out man.

"Masthead there! Can you see a sail on the port bow?"

"No can see, sar," was the response from the swarthy Krooman stationed aloft.

"Go below," said the commodore, sternly addressing the interpreter. "We want no more of your imaginary slavers."

Abdul faced round suddenly with gleaming eyes.

"By de beard of de prophet, sar," he exclaimed in a high- pitched voice, "de slave-ship am running to Makullah, cram wid nigger mans. Oder dhow follow him. One, two, three, four, perhaps five. Me see dem all plain enof in de dream ob last night, an' great pile of rupee for prize-money like silver temple."

"Go below!" thundered the commodore. The quartermaster and the signalman, at a sign from the officer of the watch, seized Abdul by the arms and hurried him off the poop.

The interpreter went quietly, uttering strange moans, and occasionally muttering to himself. The instant, however, that he arrived with his escort at the main hatchway, his whole demeanour underwent a sudden and violent change. Uttering a maniacal shriek, he shook the seamen off as if they had been a couple of babies clinging to him, and then, with a wild dash to one of the quarter-deck guns, caught up a hand-spike, and, whirling it over his head, prepared to use it as a gigantic club.

His escort, however, quickly recovered themselves, and, reinforced by the corporal and boatswain's mate of the watch, made a concerted rush upon the madman, and secured him, but not before one of their number had been felled to the deck by a swashing blow from the hand-spike.

By this time the officers had rushed up, and the commander ordered Abdul, who was still violently struggling, to be carried below, and placed in one of the cells reserved for prisoners. The poor fellow's screams and shrieks as he was borne off live in my memory yet.

For some days the luckless interpreter was raving mad. He beat his head against the bulkheads of his cell, refused all food, and implored us to kill him and put him out of his misery. That he did not die in one of these paroxysms of maniacal excitement and rage is, I think, a miracle. To the midshipmen, who slept in the steerage, just above the cells, Abdul proved a fearsome bête noire, for he made night truly hideous by his noisy ravings and ear-piercing shrieks, which were occasionally varied by gruesome groans and moans, resembling those of a wild animal dying in the throes of a frightful agony.

It was also one of the duties of the mid of the night watches to go the rounds of the ship every hour, and to make a special point of visiting Abdul's cell to ascertain that he was alive. There was never any doubt as to the poor wretch's vitality, for the instant he heard the middy's and corporal's footsteps outside he would rush to the cell door and, wildly raving, would beat upon it with his clenched fists, evidently burning to get outside and tear the young officer and his companion to pieces with all the ferocity of a tiger.

But matters could not go on thus. The want of food, and the stifling air of the cell, soon told upon the unhappy prisoner, and the surgeon one day reported to the commodore that if Abdul was not released and given fresh air and nourishment he would not answer for the consequences. Accordingly, orders were given that the captive was to be removed from his cell, given some necessary nourishment, and then taken on deck under a guard. For fear it should prove that the interpreter was shamming debility, four marines, provided with a strait-waistcoat, were stationed outside the cell, the door of which was then thrown suddenly open.

It was well that precautions had been taken, for with a weird cry Abdul dashed wildly out, gnashing his teeth, and apparently in his usual muscular form. The marines, however, were ready for him. In an instant the madman was thrown upon the deck, and introduced to the strait-waistcoat, an article of dress to which he objected with many useless struggles and fiendish cries.

The interpreter's debility, however, was no sham. He proved to be in a pitiable state of weakness. The display of fury was a temporary ebullition of temper, and a mere passing phase of his mental disease.

To the vast astonishment of everyone, Abdul recovered rapidly from both a physical and mental point of view. The surgeons were not a little elated, and gave it as their opinion that the patient was quite an abnormal individual.

He certainly was!

Needless to say, our friend was kept under constant surveillance, but this did not seem to prove irksome to him. He became as docile and tractable as a well-behaved cat, and conversed upon various topics with his usual fluency and an apparently well-balanced understanding.

One hot sweltering afternoon we were cruising on and off the Arabian coast, keeping a sort of blockade upon Makullah, when Abdul came on deck for his usual hour's exercise in the waist of the ship. He was accompanied by a marine, who had been told off to keep a watch upon his movements, but with whom he was on the best of terms. It was my afternoon watch, and I was making some report to my lieutenant, when I was startled by hearing a weird cry, and then a shout of alarm, both proceeding from the waist of the ship. Glancing up, I saw, to my horror, that Abdul had sprung upon the hammock-nettings, and was in the act of plunging overboard. In vain his marine guard endeavoured to thwart the madman's intention.

With a dull heavy splash the interpreter reached the water, and disappeared beneath the surface.

The lieutenant of the watch promptly called away the lifeboat's crew, and stopped the engines. We were steaming at the rate of six knots an hour only.

Instantly the whole ship was in an uproar, and the men poured up from the hatchways like a colony of alarmed ants.

"Take charge of the cutter," said the lieutenant to me, "and do your best to rescue the poor fellow, but I expect a shark will get him."

In a moment we had clambered out over the davits into the quarter-boat, and were then lowered into the sea. In one hurried glance from the poop I had caught sight of Abdul, swimming strongly in the direction of the coast, then about eight miles distant.

"Give way like fury!" I sang out to my crew of ten stalwart seamen. "We'll soon have Abdul on board again."

"He's going to give us a bit of a chase, I reckon," observed the coxswain, shading his eyes with his disengaged hand, and gazing keenly over the glittering expanse of sea. "That chap's like a duck in the water; there ain't no mistake about that!"

And Abdul did lead us a chase!

After a quarter of an hour's hard pulling the cutter hissed close up to him, and the two bowmen leaned over the gunwale to grab him. At that instant, however, the mad interpreter dived beneath the surface of the sea and disappeared from view. It would be impossible to describe the expression of disgust upon the bowmen's faces when they realised that their prey had escaped them.

"Sold again!" chuckled their mates.

"There he is!" yelled the coxswain. "Give way, lads."

It was true enough. Abdul had come to the surface fifty or sixty yards away, and with one scared look at us had resumed his desperate efforts to swim to the far distant coastline.

At least half a dozen times we were adroitly foiled by this marvellous swimmer. Each time that we approached him he followed the same tactics, and, plunging beneath the surface, shot away from our ken, and reappeared at a spot which we could not possibly reckon upon.

But the strongest swimmer must succumb at last, and Abdul proved to be a mere mortal, and had in the end to surrender at discretion, speechless and exhausted. That a shark did not destroy him was perhaps owing to the colour of his skin, for we observed the fins of the brutes in the neighbourhood.

I told off two of my men to hold Abdul down in the bottom of the boat, and he lay there in a dripping, huddled-up mass, inert and with closed eyes, as if unconscious.

My precautions proved quite necessary, for, when we were half- way back to the ship, the madman recovered his senses and his strength, and, with a maniacal shriek, commenced a fierce struggle with his guards, evidently with the intention of shaking them off and again taking to the water. So violent were the unhappy maniac's efforts to escape that it took the united strength of four men to hold him down, and this much retarded our return to the ship.

It was with a great feeling of relief that I saw him carried up the side, still kicking and struggling, and abusing his rescuers in most vituperative language.

We at once steamed to Aden, and, having reported the matter to the civil authorities, the mad interpreter was taken ashore with every precaution and placed in the asylum. Of his subsequent fate I know nothing.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.